One year later, historic Afghan airlift inspires pride and reflection across the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

One year later, the raw numbers used to capture the U.S. Air Force’s effort during the monumental, yet at times imperfect, withdrawal from Afghanistan create a portrait that is remarkable in its scope, reach and complexity.

While the numbers tell a story about the largest non-combatant evacuation airlift in U.S. history, numbers alone do not capture the full story. They cannot articulate the actions and bravery of individual Airmen, the Joint Force and allies; they do not identify individual decisions that saved lives; they cannot adequately describe the danger surrounding all of it and important lessons learned.

“During a time of great uncertainty our Total Force summoned courage to provide hope and deliver relief,” said Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall.

“Our aircrews were among the first to respond and their efforts would go on to surpass the historic Berlin Airlift. Concurrently, our ‘One Team,’ with the help of the international community built a support plan to receive and give immediate care to the thousands who needed desperate help. It was during this difficult time, we were awed by the efforts of service members who risked everything, some even giving their lives, to help total strangers,” he said.

In broad strokes, the effort that came to be called Operation Allies Refuge was the largest non-combatant evacuation airlift in U.S. history. Larger than Vietnam. Larger than any similar effort during World War II or the Korean War.

“Our Airmen experienced circumstances unlike any they have faced before, yet their training, innovation, and compassion were evident throughout Operations Allies Refuge and Allies Welcome,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. “The secretary of Defense has acknowledged the withdrawal from Afghanistan was imperfect, but it does not diminish the historic feat our Airmen accomplished in transporting more than 124,000 people to safety and hope.”

Over 17 days at the end of August 2021, nearly 800 civilian and military aircraft from more than 30 nations safely evacuated thousands of people, many of them desperate, from Afghanistan through a chaotic Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The airlift spanned nine countries, eight time zones, and more than 10 temporary safe havens. The withdrawal commenced around the clock at a withering pace, even as security outside the airport and, at times, on the flight line itself, deteriorated.

It continued despite a devastating suicide bombing at one of the airport’s entrances – Abbey Gate – that tragically killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 civilians.

While there remain questions about some aspects of the overall effort, there is almost no disputing that when the operation hit full stride, the results were astonishing. 

During the evacuation, Airmen at numerous locations in U.S. Central Command cared for and processed the evacuees before 35,000 of them were welcomed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany by Airmen and representatives of more than 200 interagency, joint and coalition partners.

The effort, which at times was frantic, ad hoc and coolly efficient, drained the Air Force of a large percentage of its heavy-lift fleet. In all, more than 250 U.S. Air Force mobility aircraft contributed to the airlift, including C-17 Globemaster IIIs, C-5M Super Galaxies, C-130 Hercules and all three air refueling aircraft (KC-135 Stratotankers, KC-10 Extenders and KC-46 Pegasus). Roughly half of the Air Force’s fleet of 222 C-17s were committed to this operation.

The effort was immense and far flung. It was also dangerous. Pilots had to land at Kabul’s main airport, after civilian air traffic controllers fled as conditions at the airport deteriorated. Early in the evacuation some pilots were told that landing lights and other navigational guides at the airport were not working. 

In response, Air Force personnel and allies improvised and responded. Among them were nearly 100 Airmen from the 621st Contingency Response Wing who ran airfield operations at HKIA after arriving aboard the first flights with the 82nd Airborne Division. These Airmen, with help from others, unloaded, repaired and loaded 721 of the 778 aircraft that transited HKIA, servicing an average of four aircraft simultaneously around the clock.

They also repaired radars, airfield lighting, refueling capabilities, ground servicing equipment and vehicles to ensure HKIA could handle the influx of traffic.

Like those on the ground, aircrews aloft improvised as well, often providing critical medical assistance while in-route to primary evacuation hubs such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Air crews, for example, reported “multiple resuscitations” aboard C-17s. Three children were delivered on airborne C-17s while 38 babies were born at Ramstein shortly after arrival and nine more were born at Al Udeid AB.

Each of the bases rapidly transformed to receive, process and care for thousands of evacuees. At Ramstein, for example, Airmen converted the largest hangar at the base into fully-functional international passenger terminal with nine gates to simultaneously move large volumes of passengers. By the end of the operation, Ramstein had served 1.5 million meals, which averaged 22,000 per day. Base personnel erected 552 tents across 55 acres to handle 15,000 travelers who arrived with on short notice.  These efforts were made possible through the support and close connections with representatives of the German government, which enabled operations at Ramstein.

While the final history on the withdrawal is yet to be written, a sentiment among those who took part and those who were on the ground was expressed by Lt. Col. William A. Street, a C-17 pilot who flew multiple missions into HKIA, including one aeromedical mission.

“We delivered hope. I will always be proud of that,” he said.